I have to say, I’m really enjoying wine week, here on stonesoup. Not that I needed an excuse to enjoy wine more – best to make the most of these opportunities when they come along.
DP wrote that becoming a winemaker is a daydream of his (or hers) and asked me to share a bit about what winemaking life is like. So here we go. Firstly a winemaker’s life has two distinct seasons: vintage and all the time that is not vintage.
Vintage, or when the grapes are harvested is the most intense, crazy time. It’s when it all happens. Grapes are picked, delivered to the winery, crushed and fermented. There is no such thing as work-life balance during vintage. There’s not even really such a thing as sleep. It’s all about getting the grapes picked at their optimal ripeness then getting them to the winery and fermenting them into the best wine they can be.
Vintage happens in the Autumn (or Fall). Depending on the size of the winery and the location, vintage usually lasts a couple of months. It’s long days, without weekends and it’s very hands on. There’s a wonderful sense of camaraderie that develops between all the winery staff and there are a lot of laughs. But mostly it’s really hard, physical work. My favourite job was monitoring the fermentations as they happened. Testing and tasting each day as grape juice magically turned into wine.
One of the great things about vintage is that there’s a huge demand for staff so it’s easy to travel from the Northern hemisphere to the South, chasing an almost eternal Autumn. It was fun, but like I said, hard work and not very lucrative because there are so many people enchanted by the magic of wine and willing to work for very little.
There is a big difference between big corporate wineries and the small boutique places that I preferred to work. In big wineries the winemaker role is a lot more corporate and hands off. Sure they get involved in the decision making and the tasting. But in small wineries, the winemaker is involved in everything, it’s much harder physically, but far more rewarding.
The rest of the year, winery life is a lot more idyllic. The pace is far more leisurely. It’s all about looking after the wine that was made during vintage and fine tuning it. It’s about crafting the wine and getting it ready for bottling. Depending on the style of wine, it involves putting the wine into barrels to age. It’s about monitoring the barrel aging process (which involves lots of tasting). It’s about blending different parcels of wine to get a finished product that tastes its best.
So I hope that gives you a feel for what it’s like to be a winemaker. It is amazing fun, but I still think the best part about the whole process is drinking the finished product, and thankfully you don’t need to be a winemaker to do that.
the dos of enjoying wine
do figure out which styles you like most
Everyone has different preferences. It’s a great idea to taste different styles of wine and figure out which works best for you. Are you into big, ballsy reds? Or aromatic whites? By learning to talk about the general styles, it’s easier to know in advance whether you’re going to enjoy a particular wine.
do learn which areas produce the best examples of your favourite styles
Different wine regions have different strengths when it comes to the different grape varieties. If you’re into big reds, you should know that McLaren Vale and the Barossa Valley are great for Shiraz, or that California has it’s Zinfandel, or that the Rhone Valley in France produces magical Shiraz (or Syrah, as the French call it). Likewise if you love aromatic whites like Riesling, it’s good to know that Clare Valley and Eden are probably the best Australian regions along with Mount Barker in WA and that in France, Alsace is the place for Riesling.
The benefit of this is when faced with a wine list, you may not know any individual winery, but you can increase your chances of finding a winner if you know that the Coonawarra is great for Cabernet Sauvignon or that Oregon produces some pretty special Pinot Noir.
always ask the sommelier
One of my favourite things about going out to dinner is having a chat with the sommelier, if there is one. They’re there to help so why not be brave and take the opportunity to learn something new. A good sommelier will be more interested in finding something fun, than trying to upsell you to something beyond your budget. So don’t be afraid to let them know what you’re willing to spend.
do save some empty half bottles
A great trick for when you’re on your own and don’t want to polish off a whole bottle is to have some empty half bottles on hand. Open the wine and fill up the half bottle. Seal it up and it will keep fresh for weeks. Then you can enjoy the remaining wine without fear of overindulging.
do keep opened bottles in the fridge
On the off chance that you do find yourself with leftover wine that you’d like to save for the next night, best to keep it in the fridge (yes even for reds). The theory here is that all of the aging reactions occur slower at cooler temperatures so by chilling the opened wine you’ll keep it fresher for longer. The tick is remembering to pull it out of the fridge with enough time to come back to room temp before you are ready to drink.
do decant young reds
One of the best tricks to making young red wines more drinkable is to decant them. You don’t need a decanter or anything fancy for this. Just pour the wine into a clean empty bottle, or jug or whatever you have on hand. Then pour the wine back into the bottle. This process introduces oxygen into the wine and gives it a bit of ‘speed ageing’. It’s really amazing what a difference a good splash can make.
do decant older reds
If you are lucky to be drinking old reds (10 years+) decanting is a great way to avoid getting sediment in your guest’s glasses. In this case you don’t want to splash it too much as it will already have enough oxygen, it’s about being gentle and just leaving the sediment at the bottom of the bottle.
invest in some decent glasses
You don’t need to go all out on the Ridel (I keep breaking them and have given up), but wine does taste better from good quality glasses so do invest in some reasonable glasses. In Sydney the Chef’s Warehouse has a great range of very reasonably priced glassware. In other citys try and seek out a restaurant supply shop that sells to the public.
do find a wine merchant you can trust
As the wine retailers get bigger and bigger and start to offer less choice, I can’t recommend finding yourself a small merchant who you can develop a relationship with. Someone who will learn your preferences and be able to make recommendations for you. If you’re in Australia, my mate Rhys from The Vine Press is well worth checking out.
the don’ts of enjoying wine
don’t be afraid to taste the wine
In a restaurant the reason you are given a chance to taste the wine is to make sure that it is free from any faults. Even if you’re not sure, there’s only one way to learn, so have a try. If the wine smells unpleasant like wet cardboard or nail polish remover tell the sommelier. If you think there’s something wrong there probably is, so be polite and ask for a second opinion.
don’t forget to taste wine bottled under screw caps too
Lots of people think that if there’s no cork then there’s no reason to taste the wine. And while the risk of getting a wine with cork taint is removed, there are other problems that can occur with screw caps. It’s a lot less likely that you’ll need to send something back but don’t just assume.
don’t serve your wine too cold
When wine is served too cold, the aromatics (the lovely smells) are too cold to jump out of the glass into your nose, so the wine will smell flat and far less enjoyable than it would if it were served a little warmer.
don’t be a wine fashion victim
Unfortunately wine is not immune to fads and fashions. The problems is that when a wine is fashionable, the demand is great and the industry struggles to keep up supply, so as time goes on the quality can tend to slip. At the same time the prices are rising so drinkers who follow what everyone else is drinking tend to get the worst of both worlds. Better to follow your own sense of taste and try new and different styles.
don’t be a wine snob / bore
When you’re getting into wine and discovering a whole new world, it can be tempting to talk about it non-stop. I’ve been there and it’s not that pretty, so be mindful of those around you. By all means get excited but don’t bang on about it too much.
don’t feel guilty about not having a cellar
When I was getting into wine in my 20s, I always felt like I wouldn’t be a real wine lover until I had a cellar stocked with all manner of delights. But the reality of modern life is that we don’t always have the luxury of space (and extra cash) to invest in cases and cases of wine. These days we are lucky in that the wine industry has recognised that people tend to drink wine as soon as they buy it. Modern winemakers have changed the style of their wine so that most are now designed to be drunk within a couple of years.
don’t be afraid to break the rules
Words to live by!
[5 ingredients ]
‘european’ chicken burgers with sage & white wine
I’ve called these burgers ‘European’ because I knocked off the idea of serving a hamburger patty without a bun as a main course from a hip little restaurant in the beautiful city of Barcelona. And I wanted them to sound a little bit fancy.
I could have cut this recipe down to less than 10 minutes by making the burgers smaller and flatter, but I think it’s nicer to have a big chunky burger here. And with chicken you definitely don’t want any rareness.
If you can’t find sage – I know it can be tricky to find if you don’t grow your own, some thyme leaves would be lovely instead.
These are lovely served with bitter radicchio leaves. I like to leave them undressed and let the buttery sauce serve as a salad dressing. But by all means serve with a normal green salad or your favourite green veg.
400g (14oz) minced (ground) chicken
1 small bunch sage, leaves picked
1/2 cup dry white wine
60g (2oz) unsalted butter, diced
radicchio leaves to serve
Season chicken mince with salt and pepper and form into two burger patties.
Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil over a medium high heat. Cook burgers for 4 – 5 minutes on each side until nicely browned on the outside and cooked through. Remove burgers and keep warm.
Add sage leaves to the pan and stir fry for a minute or so. Add wine and allow to simmer, stirring to get all the chickeney goodness off the bottom of the pan. When the wine has reduced by about half, add the butter and whisk until it is melted. Bring to a simmer and cook until the butter is just starting to brown.
Divide chicken burgers between 2 plates and pour over sage and the buttery sauce. Serve with radicchio passed separately.
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I’m underage but everyone would want tips to drink wine and seem more sophisticated, no? I’m a fan of white wine myself (shhh!) and while I can’t taste as liberally as I might like, these are great tips for the future. I’d love to be that person at the dinner table who really understood wine ;)
Oh golly, that looks completely delicious. Like that you’ve “poshed” up burgers – means all the family will tuck in – and I have an insanely overproducing sage bush in the garden, so anything that helps use it is a winner. Love the stuff about wines – my student days meant under a fiver (UK Pounds) and over 12% but luckily I’ve grown up a bit… I also have a friend who’s a wine merchant and incredibly unsnobby about wine – if it costs $10 and you love it, then drink it, wine is about enjoyment, not about the $$. I’ve found this helps when faced with wine buffs who, um, well, exude smugness – you know the ones..
This is such great info. I didn’t grow up with wine, and have just (in my 30’s) started to try to figure it out, but there’s just too much! I’m really glad for these tips. However, I have one question. Here I show just the beginning of my ignorance. When the recipe calls for a “dry white wine”, what does that mean? How does one know if a wine is dry? Is it in the name? I’d love to make your chicken burgers (with some greens, maybe some browned potatoes, etc.) but don’t know what to use in it. Or what to drink with it!
great tips. Instead of half-bottles I use a vacuum pump. I works great on most wines, not on all.
I will try the burger recipe; I think that giving it a rest overnight in the fridge before frying will improve it a lot.
Wow – I love the idea of those burgers without bread and just with some tasty leaves. Simple and beautiful. Your wine snob comments made me laugh – we had dinner in a fancypants michelin place in Paris (awe inspiring starry dinner) with 2 friends who have slightly different attitudes. The Wine snob discussion came up – one had the tendency to choose the most expensive wine immediately (grabs wine list, flicks to back, says well I think that one looks good….(had we drunk that wine, the single bottle would have cost more than the 12 course degustation menu with matched wines for 4 people!!!). thank heavens other friend who has worked as a sommelier jumped in, chatted to the sommelier and voila – we had a silghtly different paring of wines with our food, ranging from some that were less than 20AUD per bottle to approximatly 50. The only embarrassing moment was when the sommelier slid up to our table and discreetly implied we were drinking our wine too quickly…. woops.
@Sarah k – if you live in Sydney or Melbourne, it is quite common for hotels/pubs/large bottle shops to have tasting evenings, focussing on particular regions. I have been to a few of these and learnt quite quickly what I like/don’t like. Ther is also a place in Sydney called Wine Odessey where you can buy tasting sized glasses of a large variety of Australian wines (wines range from pricey Grange (I think tasting was 30AUD) to wines from small wineries from Canberra/Orange/Yarra Velley etc which might be 3 AUD for a tasting. The staff and the descriptions are extremely helpful, and at the end you can get a print out of what you have tasted!
@Wei-Wei, drinking wine isn’t about being sophisticated! Even if you are underage, you can start developing an appreciation for what wine is about. If you happen across one (I am not advocating underage drinking here by the way!) – smell it, look at its colour, swirl it around in a glass. Have a look in at atlas to see where it has come from (near the ocean, or in the mountains)Think about it a little and read up on the internet if you have time! Building up knowledge n anything takes time, and the people who have the experience will always look/seem more sophisticated in some way (but remember some people talk too much (or write too long comments to other peoples blogs….like me! :-P ) and because they say it with confidence, other people believe them slightly even if they don’t always agree!!!
Jules – that is a really nice intro to wine. Great recipe too. Chicken and sage is a winning combination.
Nice, Jules! My husband has always harbored a secret fantasy of buying a wine property in France and becoming a wine maker. He knows it won’t ever happen, so he’s contenting himself with learning all he can about the tastes of the different countries and regions. (But if I hear the name ‘Palmer’ one more time this week, I may scream…)
One important thing we did learn in this unusually hot summer, in a region of the US that has an almost-French bias against air-conditioning, is what ‘room-temperature’ for red wines really means. If the room is 85 degrees (F), and the wine has just been sitting out, it loses all the subtle flavors and just tastes boozy. We have gotten some funny looks when we ask for a bucket of ice for a bottle of red to bring it down to a better temp!
Of course, you guys are in full-on winter right now, aren’t you?
Hello, I utterly enjoyed wine week so far and I have a question:
Can you enlighten me on vegetarian wines? As I understand, somewhere in the winemaking progress sometimes (always?) gelatine is used. Is that common and how do I find out if my wines are free of animal products?
good question continenthopper
Only SOME wines are made using proteins such as gelatine, skim milk, egg whites and even bulls blood (it’s a spanish thing). The idea is if there are harsh tannins or flavours the protein floats through the wine soaking up the harsh particles and settle on the bottom of the tank or barrel. The wine is then separated from the protein so in theory no protein should remain in the wine.
This is more common in whites than reds as the protein can also strip colour from the wine. These days in Australia it is mandatory to label wines that have used these proteins. I’m not sure of the legislation in the rest of the world.
it’s a nice dream to have. you should tell him there’s a saying in the wine industry that the best way to make a small fortune in wine is to start with a large one(!).
and you’re right – if red wine is served too warm the alchocol overpowers everything – great idea to get an ice bucket. although rose was really invented to overcome the summer red problem ;)
and you’re right – it’s still the middle of winter now – how I long for a warm summer evening
thanks for your comments – you’re taking the work out of this for me!
great story with your sommelier experience
the vacuum pumps can be OK if you still have a reasonable amount of wine left in the bottle but if there’s too much air they struggle to work I find. enjoy the burgers!
great to hear you’re getting into wine – it’s heaps of fun.
and excellent question. these days most white wine will be dry (in the 70s there was a fashion of leaving lots of sugar in most wines but thankfully we’ve moved on from that) unless it’s a dessert style. so if it says ‘late harvest’ or ‘botrytis’ or mentions any thing about being sweet it’s best to keep clear.
I used a riesling for my burgers but a pinot gris, semillon or even a chardonnay would be lovely. I tend to steer clear of sauv blanc because they tend to be too grassy and the flavour comes through. If you do pick something with a little sweetness though it won’t be the end of the world.
I’d second Alex on sussing out a wine appreciation course in your area. It’s a great way to learn. I did a few just through my local evening classes and it was a great way to learn. Actually if you’re in Sydney my mate Rhys who I linked to above runs classes that are heaps of fun.
you’re right – I’m surprised how much I love these ‘posh’ burgers. jealous of your sage bush. and good point no one can argue with the ‘wine is about personal enjoyment’ stance.
very excited to have underage readers on stonesoup. yay – but you’d better listen to alex re wine and sophistication. when you are legal, highly recommend trying a wine appreciation course – a great way to learn. and fun too.
Thanks for the info. I think I’m about ready to take a course, even though it will drive the religious inlaws to distraction. Unfortunately, I’m nowhere near Sydney, (Ohio), so I’ll have to find something that isn’t too bad. I did find a Tapas place in Columbus that offers taste pairings with each dish, so, conceivably, you could do 4 or 5 tapas with 4 or 5 wines. Only a couple bucks more per plate. Delightful!
Ok, that’s the fourth reference to ‘botrytis’ I’ve seen today – the others were from reading the husband’s new Wine Spectator magazine. What does it mean? As a gardener, that word means a really nasty fungal disease that kills peonies. How does it apply to wine?
Marie, the fungus contributes an aroma, as I understand it — I’ll leave it to more wine-savvy people to REALLY answer you.
I only know of it because of a really lovely little perfume by the name Botrytis, meant to capture the fragrance. (I’m a perfumer and sometimes perfume critic, but woefully ignorant on the topic of wine.)
Jules, what a wonderful topic… thank you for leading those of us who are clueless into the light, at least a little! :)
Thanks, Linda! So, it’s another way to say, “mushroom-y?”
Who makes that perfume? I’d love to smell it. Don’t know if I can get past the name – it’s something I’ve always regarded as ‘The Enemy’.
My peonies, however, are a scent I can’t get enough of!
Thank you, Jules, now I have an idea why these products are used. And bulls blood, who knew! So safest to stay with labeled australian reds for now until I further investigate my local wine dealer.
@Alex I love that the sommelier came up and implied that you were drinking the wine too quickly. I wish someone would do that to some of my friends; they never seem to listen to me ;)
These wine tips are great. Now I am inspired to pull together some tips for my Wine Wednesday piece next week! There is so much to know about wine, and a little extra info can really go a long way.
Regarding tasting and sending corked wine back, I had a really unpleasant experience at a French place on Bastille day this year. They had a special menu for the holiday, and the wine that came with it was atrocious. Totally undrinkable, really vinegar-y. I sent it back and told them precisely what was wrong and, since we got it by the glass, they brought back the exact same thing. Another glass from the same spoiled bottle. Really disappointing.
I’d add that there are no hard and fast rules, including those listed here.. :)
With that in mind, not all grapes must be picked fresh and immediately processed. In fact the native American grape, the Muscadine, does not ripen all at once like most grapes, and not only can but should be picked when ripe and then frozen for later processing when enough have been harvested. This is true for commercial operations as well as the homesteader. I am working on another batch of muscadine wine, which will not be the super sweet stuff we can occasionally find from commercial producers, but rather a more complex and interesting wine.
Thanks for the series..
interesting about muscadine, I hadn’t heard of that variety – will keep an eye out for it. I guess icewine is another good example of when freezing is a good idea.
glad you found this helpful for your wine wednesday.
I hate when you send a wine back and that happens – you’re right so disappointing and I guess just an indicator that the restaurant doesn’t care enough to educate its staff properly.
lovely to hear from a perfumer – with your skills you’re in a great position to be able to experience and talk about wine. the language can be quite similar I think.
great question. I love botrytis affected wines. You’re right is is the nasty fungal disease that wreaks havock on your peonies. And it can be a problem in winemaking as well. But under the right conditions botrytis can actually produce some of the most divine wine. The most famous is Chateaux d’Yquem from Bordeaux.
What happens is when there is enough humidity, the botrytis grows on the grapes and sucks water out of the grapes thereby concentrating the sugars inside. It also imparts a lovely honeyed perfume (sometimes like honeysuckle) to the fruit. So when it’s made into wine you get this wonderful sweet nectar. I’m not surprised there’s a perfume named after it – it’s not mushroomy at all.
So might be a good idea to call a truce with botrytis until you’ve tried one of the wines. My favourite are made from Semillon – actually if you can get your hands on some ‘Noble One’ by the Australian winemaker deBortolli, it’s a more affordable version of the Chateaux d’Yquem.
I remember my first winemaking job when the botrytis semillon grapes came into the winery. They were about 1/3 normal looking, 1/3 raisins and 1/3 covered with the grossest looking fungus. The winemaker was super excited and said it was the perfect mix for making botrytis semillon and then proceeded to grab a bunch and start eating. I was a little hesitant but didn’t want to seem like a chicken so I tried them as well. To this day they were the best tasting grapes EVER. Super sweet, raisiny, apricoty and perfumed. So good.
your tapas place sounds perfect – actually that’s a great format to be able to taste different things and learn what you like. enjoy!
Thanks, Jules! I’ll see if I can find ‘Noble One’; I’m game for trying it…
And, Storm’s right about the Muscadines – they’re a thing of beauty when ripe. I think they’re closely related to the French Muscat grape. They grew wild near my grandmother’s place in Arkansas when I was a child, and I remember eating them out of hand on visits in the Fall… Good memories.
I didn’t know all about the decanting of wines. thanks for that info, it was great to read
Marie, The muscadine is a wholly American variety, sometimes included in the group of “Fox grapes” which includes the mustang grape of Texas and many of the less than tasty varieties growing in the Atlantic region and northeast. No relation to the muscat, though some varieties of muscadine are supposed to taste a bit like the muscat (none that I’ve had myself though).
And I am with you on the memories.. I used to traipse up and down creeks and woods in Georgia picking every last ripe muscadine I could find or get to.. even though I have cultivated vines, I am still always looking for those wild ones..
Though this does not go into any lineage of the grape, other than to point out that it is native to North America, this site has some good info on the muscadine:
Sorry Jules! that was rude of me!
I’m a long time reader, first time poster & love your blog.
I’m intrigued and surprised that you suggest that opened wine can be kept for a few weeks and still be drinkable. My boyfriend took a wine appreciation course and was told that the maximum amount of time you could keep a wine after opening was 48 hours (I now feel slightly ripped off and shudder to think of all the wine we have chucked out!).
I did have a question though: I have found in the past that if I kept a wine longer than a few days it would sometimes start to develop an astringent taste. I am wondering if this is because the wine would have been of average quality to start with and that better wines wouldn’t have the same problem? (good bottles don’t usually last more than one evening in my house!)
And THAT’S why I write about gardening, not wine! :) Thanks for setting me straight, Storm! I should know better than to repeat something I was told in passing as a fact without checking first. Great link – thanks again!
Thank you for sharing this it would really help me to catch up on a wine tasting event I’ll be attending this week since I don’t know much about wine and I really wanna enjoy my self there and this is a big help to me.
enjoy your tasting Johnny!